The Chinese Interior Design Business… Interview Outline

Interviewee:  Roger Billington, Director of Design and Development, B+SW Design, Shenzhen.

Theme:Located in a city of design, how does B+SW adapt to and lead the development of design? What’s your opinions about international design environment at home and abroad?

My business has always been based on a research approach to projects and, by consequence, developing a future focused capability in the designers who work here. We design from our knowledge and experience base, and if those bases are limited, then so is our ability to design with the credibility needed to convince clients that we are worth our fee, the better you are, the more you can charge. As in any other business, investment is needed to improve and our investments are in knowledge and technology. My design teams are all researchers and have a topic of their own choice, but must also be of value to the business. We also run a design history seminar every week, topics that extend designers understanding and appreciation of many diverse aspects of design, culture and society……check to see some examples, (although we are a little behind in these two areas at the moment).

Interview outline:

1. Hi, Roger. It has been seven years since Shenzhen was selected as the city of design, as a representative international company in Shenzhen, from which aspects does B+SW feel the encouragement and support for the design industry in Shenzhen?

Support from who…?

Other than A963, I don’t see any support for design as a business in SZ. I think most businesses still see design as an expense, not an investment, that’s the basic problem here and that will only change when companies adopt an understanding that design assists the development of all aspects of biz from products, interiors, brand, print, web and marketing when they utilize a thinking design approach to their business, then design will flourish as it has in other countries. So if we can organize support for design and designers to help business to realize the values of design then that would be a good start, how to do this, I have some good ideas… below….?

2. China is developing rapidly. The Chinese government has just introduced upgrades in ten key sectors of manufacturing industry before, presenting the concept of “2025 MADE IN CHINA”. In your opinion, what can design bring to development? Pease give examples to illustrate it.

I am currently promoting design led product development (DLPD) as a support to these government initiatives. All the ten areas for investment lack the benefit of an experienced commercialisation unit and that can be introduced through DLPD. DLPD is a process which can be applied to all products and services and through a series of evaluation stages ensures that products are ready for the market. In a globally competitive environment, if products are simply a good idea, or innovative technology, without satisfying more subtle consumer needs, then they will not be competitive with leading international products and services who’s design direction also focuses on ‘soft’ elements of development and social understanding of consumer wants and needs. The days of ‘making do’ have gone and manufacturers now have to understand the expectations of international consumers, and increasingly Chinese, who are showing preference to products that are environmentally safe, have sophisticated user considerations and are, of course well designed.

3. What’s the reason that you pay attention to the policy of design investment? Is the fact that B+SW is an international design company counted in?

Design investment…?  Where….?

4. Referring to investments in design field in foreign countries, take Samsung as an example, its success is contributed to design, but government’s support also plays a very important role in its success. What’s your opinion about this phenomenon?

I don’t agree that the governments support has very much to do with the success of design led companies overseas. The majority of companies that describe themselves as design led are simply confident, innovative and technologically advanced and understand consumer expectations. The world has changed through generational evolution, many of the current older thoughts are still rooted in the post WW 11 thinking of, utility rather than excellence. This is understandable, the need for economy was necessary, but now with later generations, an expectation of top performance, user centered and value added are the norm. Price is an issue, technology is another, but design is the main differentiation between products these days, manufacturers who fail to understand this will not be with us for long. The brand development of a company relies on consumer appreciation of the design approach the companies take, so the importance of design cannot continue to be relegated to ‘making things look nice’……DLPD develops the holistic approach to a companies organizational developments and products through design thinking techniques.

5. Our designers have always kept a close contact with designers in Italy. As a leader of global design, why can they keep the edge in your opinion? What can we learn from them?

I would say the most important thing to be learnt from Italian design is for business in China to appreciate the value and contribution design and designers can make to organizations, especially during a period of immense change, as China is in right now. Design is not simply how things look, it is about how to develop the whole manufacturing programme, the organization required to implement the programme and then how to market it, to whom and why. In the face of massive change themselves at the end of WW11, Italy developed this perception of excellence as designers, now because they ‘walk the talk’, their economy, post war, has been based on this belief and so they have made it a reality, (perception becomes reality) I do not think that Italian design is that good, but they do, and so it works, this confidence is what Chinese business can learn from the Italian model.

6. The postwar economic development of Italy is based on design education, but they don’t have design academies domestic and designers should first accept the education of architects. What influences does this kind of model have on designers and what’s your opinion?

This philosophy is based more on allowing a student to develop a personal interest and direction in design, art and architecture and as they progress through the course the focus gets sharper, but still allows an holistic approach to design decisions. It is the model I studied as a student in England, and it is the model I have adapted for my position as head of design schools in New Zealand and Australia. I totally agree with the idea that a creative individual must be given the opportunity to ‘find’ their way in a creative environment, as long as they accept the rigour of professionalism as part of it, from this comes genuine innovation. Design is above all else a business oriented profession, it is not an art where self expression is the model, design closely follows the needs and often predicts the future of business. This is what China needs if the concept of innovative economic development is to happen, you can’t just tell people to be innovators, you have to create the right structures and support to encourage it.

7.  Are there any other cases promoting the design development in the world impress you? Please share them with us.

I am quite impressed with my own design development programmes, they are innovative and they are demanding of the students, in business though they are often a little bit ahead of client’s expectations. Through my insistence in ongoing learning and research I believe my design management rates high in comparison to any other in the world, often the problem lies in selling this to Clients, so we compromise a little. There are also notable schools of design the Architects Association in London, Royal College of Art, Art Center and many others, and there are many highly successful design led companies in the world, it would be nice to get a programme started in China to assist in the uptake in both education and business here and create links with some of these long established centres of excellence.

8. Many western countries have long historical and cultural traditions, and they have become veritable design powers. But in China, Chinese elements are frequently copied in design. Does there exist any differences in ways of thinking between them?

I honestly believe that design talent already exists in China, designers only lack the focus,  confidence and opportunity to become a world power in design. Design is, after all, only about 30 years old in China, since the economic policies of Deng Xiao Ping, before that it was all utility and industry. I have been visiting and helping in China for 15 years and have witnessed a great change in the apparent abilities of designers here, I think that a look at design education objectives and some coaching for business leaders would strengthen that growth in ability and, most importantly encourage younger Chinese designers to develop a design culture which reflects China, not some copy of a western model.

9. How to deal with the individuality and otherness of different countries when China is learning from them? What positive ideas and thoughts do you have?

Individuality is the word, and an education that insists on the development of divergent thinking, rather than the linear or conventional thinking, is I believe the only way to move into the future as described by the governments Made in China 2025 policy. I believe there is a need for Business studies, Engineering and Design to work together and develop a hybrid approach to ‘design in business’ courses for emerging designers. As I said above, global business is making decisions about products and services that most Chinese designers and businesses don’t even know about yet, why….? ( lack of research and development ) Those who do know, or understand the need to find out will be the ones who succeed in the new Made in China 2025 environment.

10. To become a county or city of design, what does China still lacks? And what efforts did B+SW make?

I wrote many supportive articles and papers in support of Shenzhen’s application to become a city of design and I am happy to be able to tell my international colleagues that I now live and work in such a city. For the rest of china, why bother, between shanghai and SZ that’s enough, let’s focus on education, at all levels, and see China as a design led country not just a few cities. Develop MBA degrees with a DLPD content for existing and emerging business, provide design, architecture and engineering degrees that provoke students to evolve rather than replicate and supply meaningful scholarships or awards to younger designers and students of design so they can travel, see and experience, in context, the influences that the rest of the world of design has to offer. Travel is the most important experience a young person can have and for such a small cost the ROI would be one of the best investments the Chinese Government could make to support the 10 areas of investment for ‘Made in China 2025’

roger b.



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